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Christina Veiga

6 things to know before Indiana officials vote on new high school graduation rules

It’s about to get a lot more complicated for Indiana high schoolers to graduate — assuming a proposal is approved next week.

The plan for creating a system of “graduation pathways” has seen several twists and turns since lawmakers approved the idea last spring. Since then, a state committee has met for dozens of hours to try to figure out the answer to one key question: What skills do students need to be ready for life after high school?

Is it passing a test? Multiple tests? Showing you can get to a job on time? Completing an apprenticeship? All of these things? Unsurprisingly, no one quite agrees on the answer.

The committee’s final recommendations will head to the Indiana State Board of Education next week, where the goal is to approve them so lawmakers can then incorporate the plans into state law when the session begins in January. But already, many educators and some policymakers have argued the process is happening way too fast.

For one thing, critics say the pathways are already too similar to existing diplomas and too complicated — both for schools to track and parents and students to understand. Because overworked school counselors would end up shouldering much of the tracking, school leaders are hesitant to add more to their plates.

There’s still time to let the state board know what you think — they are having a work session to discuss the plans on Tuesday, and their Wednesday meeting includes time for public comment.

In the meantime, we’re going to break down the plan for you and answer some key questions.

What are “graduation pathways”? Doesn’t Indiana already have four diplomas?

Indiana’s graduation requirements say students must meet the criteria of one of four diplomas (General, Core 40, Honors, Technical Honors) as well as pass a graduation exam — in this case, the 10th-grade ISTEP test. A couple years ago, the requirement was end-of-course exams in sophomore English and Algebra I.

The pathways would take this idea a step further and lay groundwork earlier for what students plan to do post-high school.

Not only would students need to meet diploma requirements, but they would also have to satisfy additional criteria in most cases, which could be an exam, completing a certain number of advanced courses or gaining credit for internships.

Which students would be affected by the new pathways?

The new graduation pathways system would go into effect for today’s seventh-graders, who start high school in 2019-20 and graduate in 2022-23.

Does that mean high school students no longer need to take ISTEP?

Not exactly. While passing ISTEP would no longer be a roadblock to graduation, it’s still required by the federal government that high school students take state tests each year. That test is ISTEP through next year. After that, it could be end-of-course exams within the new ILEARN testing system or, as the pathways committee is proposing, a college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT. If the state board goes with the college entrance exam, lawmakers would need to address that in state law next year.

Note: Current eighth-graders and high school students will still need to pass ISTEP to graduate from high school, and wouldn’t use the pathways unless their school decided to make it available sooner. It’s not clear how it would work if schools opt-in early.

Why do we need the pathways at all?

Over the past several years, “college and career readiness” has been the tagline at the forefront of U.S. education policy. That’s partially tied to efforts across the country to create new, more rigorous academic standards (remember Common Core?). If the bar was raised, the thinking went, students would eventually be more prepared for demand in the workforce and higher education — both sectors that had reported many students were coming to them without the necessary reading, math and critical-thinking skills to be successful.

In Indiana, the “career” part of that phrase has been especially prominent. Indiana’s most recent executives — Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Eric Holcomb — have both spearheaded initiatives that aim to give students more opportunities for workforce training in high school.

The graduation pathways were born out of those efforts.

OK, break it down — what are the different pathways and what will students need to do?

Students would have to complete at least one option from each of the following three buckets:

Potential Indiana graduation pathways

Pathway requirementsPathway options
High school diplomaMeet high school diploma requirements
Show employability skills (complete at least one of the options through locally developed programs)— Project-based learning experience
— Service-based learning experience
— Work-based learning experience
Show postsecondary readiness (complete at least one of the options)— Meet all requirements of an Indiana Academic or Technical Honors Diploma
— Meet the “college-ready benchmarks” for the ACT or SAT
— Earn a score of 31 or higher on the ASVAB
— Earn a state- and industry-recognized credential or certification
— Complete a state-, federal- or industry-recognized apprenticeship
— Earn a C average or better in at least 6 high school credits in a career and technical education sequence
— Earn a C average or better in three AP, IB, CLEP, Cambridge International or dual credit courses.
— Complete requirements of a locally created pathway that is approved by the state board

What about diplomas?

The committee is planning to continue conversations about revamping high school diplomas, which were a big point of frustration for educators who came to share their views on the pathways — topics they felt were inextricably linked.

Indiana officials recently learned that the federal government has decided to no longer count the state’s less rigorous General Diploma in graduation rate calculations. The move stems from a provision in new federal law that says the only diploma that can count toward a state’s graduation rate is the one that most students earn — in Indiana, that’s the Core 40. The change will cause graduation rates to drop for many high schools and raises concerns from parents whose children rely on the General Diploma because they struggle academically or have special needs.

Although the state education department has decided to seek a waiver from the federal government to postpone that change, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick admitted it’s pretty unlikely it will be granted.